Kelvin Cheung: I’m A Cook, That’s My Number One Job

You’ve been this close to booking a flight ticket to the ‘bay to eat his cookies & decadent pancakes & lobster roll & oh well, everything. You’ve spent hours browsing through his feed and pinned to his Instagram stories. You’ve experienced tummy-clinching laughter attacks thanks to his boomerangs and snaps. You’ve hit the gym courtesy his CrossFit time-lapses. Say hello to Corporate Chef and Food & Beverage Director of Aallia Hospitality, Kelvin Cheung. The force behind One Street Over and Bastian in Mumbai, Cheung is responsible for adding huge amounts of spunk & chutzpah to the country’s F&B industry with a generous helping of community building. Unveiling what maketh this powerhouse gent with the perfect coif, we get talking to Cheung about his culinary chronicles, Mumbai, and being chef de cuisine beyond the kitchen.

Charisma, Curiosity, and Culinary skills - 3Cs Kel C is known for across the nation. Whilst the first and latter have garnered a tribe of loyalists, the second has the rest of the country clammering for reservations. Rolling cookie dough at the age of five, diners swarmed his father’s (Eddy Cheung) restaurant in Toronto for a piece of his oddly shaped pastries. Turning twelve, occasional baking sessions evolved into a full time job, and Cheung kick-started the journey of a lifetime. “My father ensured I gained experience at every station of the restaurant. It made me appreciate the entire process, from the ingredients entering the kitchen to the final plating of the dish ready to be served,” reminisces the third-generation chef. Mastering the traditional family gems, Cheung knew it was time to take his training up a notch. Armed with ambition and the dedication to honour his father's legacy that boasts of eight restaurants, he embarked for Kendall School of Culinary Arts, Chicago.

DSSC Kelvin Cheung
DSSC Kelvin Cheung

As fate would have, a twist of the tales was on the horizon, and the next chapter of his life unfolded with a call from the COO of IB Hospitality. “It was all about timing,” he shares. However, the position of Executive Chef of Ellipsis, a restaurant in an unknown land struggling to stay afloat, didn’t sound particularly alluring at the time he confesses, “My instant reaction was a massive NO.” Eventually bowing to the dance of the planets, Cheung accepted the herculean task of metamorphosing Mumbai’s Ellipsis with a preliminary six month stint. Championing local produce and eliminating imported and canned goods, this Canada born, USA raised, India residing chef turned the menu on its head. “You can create an approachable menu by sourcing locally. And when there are heaps of options available, why would you do it any other way,” he says. Octopus from Southern Italy was swapped for local calamari, and toor dal defeated South African heirloom tomatoes. The Maximum City took to it and how; Ellipsis rose to become synonymous with quality fine dining. He shoved away the stuffiness often associated with fine dine, and injected a sense of normalcy and spunk into the system. The half-year jaunt became a three year sojourn. However, Mumbai’s beloved chef bid adieu to the project in 2015 and navigated his way back to the United States.

Approaching his personal and professional life with a healthy dose of humour, Chef Cheung married Andrea Michele in an impromptu ceremony graced by In-N-Out burgers, chips, vegan doughnuts, and home-made guacamole. The duo began shortlisting future opportunities and Mumbai was third on the list. Often known to say, “It’s where I built the better part of my career,” he once again took the leap of faith and landed in the soulful city overlooking the Arabian Sea. Joining Aallia Hospitality, One Street Over (OSO) came to life. Sharing the position of Executive Chef at the restaurant with his protégée and friend, Chef Boo Kwang Kim, Mumbai’s wonder chef created a menu showcasing global street food. “It was inspired from my travels in the United States,” says the inked gent (tattoos > visible skin). The result was artistic plating with carefully curated blank space on the plates, seasonal produce showcasing its flavour strength, and fine cocktails that will keep you coming back. A neighbourhood cocktail-forward bar with irresistible bar bites, OSO made it crystal clear - Kelvin Cheung and Mumbai make for a badar$e combination.

DSSC Kelvin Cheung Boo Kwang Kim

(L-R) Chef Kelvin Cheung and Chef Boo Kwang Kim

Cheung’s burning passion to further Mumbai’s fresh catch soon took the shape of Bastian in Bandra West. Named after Sebastian, Little Mermaid’s royal crab, this seafood eatery crowns crustacean as King Triton (you ought to remember. King of the sea? No? Did you go from baby to adult in 1.3 seconds?). Boasting of gigantic crab installations and tiki mugs at the bar, the decor embodies the theme of the menu - seafood gluttony. This taskmaster-in-kitchen takes into account all those who walk through his doors and thereby the menu boasts of an inclusive selection from the land. From vegan tarts to sushi with a Kel C twist, they’ve got it all. Talking about the ever evolving menu at the restaurant he shares, “I trust my palate and believe in constantly revising dishes. As I grow, so do my dishes, the ingredients that I use, and the way I plate.” In all scenarios, through time or parallels, respecting the ingredient is first and foremost. “I use the best quality ingredients and their taste always takes centre stage,” shares the chef obsessed with fermentation.

Challenging the norms of a “restaurant” as accepted by the country, Bastian and One Street Over are pushing the envelope. And their success is evidence of the exponential growth of Mumbai’s culinary culture. “I love that there is less emphasis on fine dining. Diners are willing to experiment. It’s the time for fun dining,” proclaims the gaming enthusiast. Garnering a cult following, this Instagram maverick lays immense emphasis on connecting with consumers and chefs from across the world. “Connection is key for my business and social media is a powerful medium. My mind goes a million miles and hour, and sometimes that means I may end up writing gibberish instead of a clean, well-structured message. Instagram helps me communicate my thoughts through images and videos,” he shares. Using the platform as a source of inspiration, a methodology for growth, and a mode of feedback, this veteran has built an empire. One that is often frequented by the likes of Masaba Gupta, Aditi Rao Hydari, and Sonam Kapoor. Yet, humility remains his curtained weapon, “I don’t think of myself as a celebrity chef. I’m a cook. That’s my number one job.”

DSSC Kelvin Cheung Bastian

Bastian

DSSC Kelvin Cheung Beetroot Tartare

Beetroot Tartare at One Street Over

As we knock back yet another Pic Kel Back (Chef’s go-to tipple), we get talking about the makings of Kel C outside the kitchen. “When travelling I’m extremely flexible, but at home I’m stuck in my ways,” he chuckles. A cuppa joe while watching American football is how he kicks off the day, and sprinkled with unruly enthusiasm and infectious energy is how it unfolds. “It doesn’t feel right if I don’t get any movement in,” and thus a killer CrossFit sesh is must every morning. Sharing how exercising has helped him turn over a new leaf, he says, “It has helped me clean up my life in so many ways. A cleaner diet, more sleep, and no smoking.” As he jets set to yet another city for yet another adventure, we take a deroute with the signature DSSC Rapid Fire.

One culinary trend you wish would end pronto?

The misuse of gastronomy.

A tip for amateur chefs starting out in the food industry?

Never stop studying and practicing. There is something to learn from every single cook you meet, whether a professional or your neighbor down the road.

Your go-to winter comfort food?

Congee.

One thing you love about the F&B industry? And one you hate?

I both love & hate that it changes every day.  

The next culinary trend that’s going to take the world by storm?

Elevated Indian cuisine.

Your most memorable experience at a Chef's Night?

What happens at Chef's Night, stays at Chef's Night.

This conversation is a part of the DSSC Secret Conversation Series, where we get candid with the ace industry disruptors who map its course one masterstroke at a time.

Image Courtesy: blankart.in

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